“See him?” I was repeating the question just asked by my Bahamian guide, who stood next to me on the bow platform of his flats skiff. “How could I miss him?”
After a couple of hours spent squinting to spot elusive gray ghosts — the bonefish that every flats angler wants to target — I had no trouble seeing the dark shape of a 4-foot barracuda. It was laid up next to a mangrove shoot in the clear shallows, though it could have been mistaken for a log by someone who didn’t know better. Certainly, a log would have been as animated. Of course, that is a credit to the barracuda as an apex hunter, an ambush predator that remains motionless until it strikes.
This guy wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry, a welcome change from the immediacy that bonefishing requires, where often seconds are all an angler has to spot, cast and tease a fish into striking. I picked up a medium spinning outfit with a Yo-Zuri Surface Cruiser topwater lure and a short wire trace, which I had brought for just such an occasion. I lobbed the lure well beyond the fish, which hadn’t so much as twitched, and began to work it across the mirror-calm surface. When the lure was nearly even with the fish, within four feet, I let the bait sit, then barely twitched it a couple of times. The big fish slowly turned, its movement almost imperceptible, until it was looking directly at the lure.
I moved it a bit farther from the barracuda and closer to the boat. No interest. Damn. I twitched it again. Suddenly, in a lunge too fast for the eye to clearly follow, the black shadow rocketed eight feet to engulf the lure. In the next instant, the fish went straight up in a leap high enough to make a tarpon jealous. I still don’t understand how a fish that is at least 4 feet long, in just 18 inches of water, can catch six feet of air — but, my God, is it awesome.
Let’s check signals here. “Awesome” and “barracuda” haven’t always been equated in angling circles. I suspect that’s because few anglers have targeted big cudas on the flats. Historically, flats purists have avoided cudas. As recently as 2019, an Outdoor Life writer declared, “Barracuda are the archenemy of anglers fishing along the Florida Keys.”
These are likely the words of someone who’s never sight-cast to the species on crystalline flats. Perhaps the writer had encountered them only in blue water. They’re different animals offshore. Besides cutting in half hooked fish and leaders, the fight these deepwater cudas put up could be likened to the proverbial old boot. But the same fish in clear, shallow water becomes a UXO — unexploded ordnance — that can go off at any second.
“Cudas are lightning-fast. They launch in crazy jumps, make screaming long runs and are just an unpredictable, badass gamefish. What’s not to like?” That’s the assessment of Capt. Justin Rea, based on 20 years of guiding the flats around Key West. Rea, who founded the annual Cuda Bowl tournament 10 years ago, calls barracuda the “most underrated gamefish on the flats,” though he acknowledges changing attitudes and more anglers (particularly fly enthusiasts) who are eager to target the toothy predators.
Rea’s enthusiasm is difficult to miss, as I noted fishing aboard his Yellowfin bay boat on a chilly January day. Also on board were Adrian Gray, a fishing photographer and brand manager for the International Game Fish Association, and barracuda greenhorn Dan Quinn, field promotions manager at Rapala in Minnesota. We had our work cut out for us, as a strong cold front had come through just before we arrived and left the flats unusually chilly. “After a couple days of warm weather, the flats will come to life,” Rea told us.
We fished the next day with Capt. Tim Carlile out of Sugar Loaf Key, and the warming had begun enough to give us shots at hooking fish. Quinn hung his first-ever barracuda, casting a Rapala X-Rap minnow. The strike and fight made him an instant believer.
Many more believers have been made after fishing the Cuda Bowl, Rea says, noting that more than 50 boats have competed in recent years. “We started the Cuda Bowl in 2010 because barracuda weren’t receiving the respect they deserve,” he says. “You have this big, bad fish that hunts the shallowest flats, exploding on needlefish and ballyhoo, and fly anglers would turn up their noses at them while pursuing” bonefish, permit and tarpon. Those who have targeted cuda have found them a challenge, Rea says, and “one of the most memorable fish they could catch on the flats.”
Big cudas — 20-plus pounds, on the flats — are wary. They’re constantly aware of everything within 100 feet of them, Rea says. “They require very long casts with clear, floating lines and long leaders,” he says. “Almost immediately, the angler has to start stripping the fly line so the fly doesn’t sink into the eel grass.” He recommends a two-handed strip to get the fly moving fast enough to provoke a strike.
With spinning or bait-casting gear using 12- to 20-pound braid, the venerable tube lure is tough to beat, ripped fast past a laid-up or cruising cuda. The X-Rap and similar minnow crankbaits — floating or suspending — can be dynamite, too. Rea uses a Dremel tool to remove the lip from X-Raps, so the lure can be cranked across the surface. I love working a minnow lure near a cuda and, after a long pause, giving it slight twitches with intermittent pauses. Watching one slowly pivot just before it explodes on the lure is a major kick.
I’ve had success with topwaters, as well — mostly walking lures. You might think cudas would attack large, noisy chuggers without hesitation, but Rea says this approach on a quiet flat is likely to spook the fish, reaffirming the cautious nature of cudas in the shallows.
Barracuda prowl the Keys’ flats year-round, but the best time to target them is during winter. As noted, a severe cold front can shut down fishing on the flats for a few days, but when seasonally cool winter water makes it tough to find other flats gamefish, cudas are there and hungry.
Perhaps another indication of changing attitudes toward this species came in 2016, after considerable public pressure to manage the fishery as a resource in the Keys, with anglers and divers reporting a decline in their numbers. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission that year announced more restrictive limits in South Florida and Keys waters, including a slot limit of 15 to 36 inches (fork length), with one fish larger than 36 inches per person or boat per day within a daily bag limit of two fish per person, six per boat. This applies to commercial and recreational fishing. (The restrictions can be reviewed in full at myfwc.com.)
Bones, permit and tarpon will endure as the holy triumvirate of the flats, but anglers are increasingly upping their winter game by playing the cuda card and hooking up with the baddest fish in skinny water.
Sphyraena Barracuda - A Snapshot
With the exception of the Eastern Pacific, anywhere you fish warm, tropical seas, you’ll encounter the great barracuda. Great indeed: It’s the largest of more than two dozen barracuda species. The International Game Fish Association all-tackle record of 87 pounds, 3 ounces (about 6½ feet) was set at Christmas Island, the Republic of Kiribati, in 2012. But fly enthusiasts need not travel to remote islands; eight of 14 tippet-class world records were set in Key West.
Sphyraena barracuda ranges from skinny inshore waters to deep wrecks and reefs, particularly the larger, solitary individuals. Top-speed estimates vary but put the fish in the 27- to 36-mph range. Very fast, but not the fastest fish. (Sailfish can hit nearly 70 mph.) However, few fish in the world can top the cuda for its burst of speed. Capable of going from 0 to 60 mph in an eye blink, the cuda is the Tesla Roadster of the fish world.
Great barracuda are table fare in many parts of the world, though not much in the United States, being a poster child for ciguatera risk. However, smaller cudas on the flats are likely to be risk-free, and I consider the flesh of 2- to 3-pounders superb.
Barracuda can free-jump wildly, are unpredictable and have very sharp teeth. These factors have seriously injured anglers and others over the years. “Woman Seriously Injured in Barracuda Attack,” declared an Associated Press headline from July 1993. The woman was standing on a houseboat in the Keys when a big barracuda shot out of the water and bit her hand and hip. It reportedly took more than 200 sutures to close the wounds. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In 2011, a cuda lunged from the quiet waters of Florida Bay and hit a kayaker hard enough to break ribs and collapse a lung. In 2004, a barracuda leaped more than 30 feet into the cockpit of a charter boat, fracturing an unfortunate angler’s hand.
Those were free-jumpers, but hooked barracuda also have been known to join anglers in the boat. In 2011, an angler out of Naples, Florida, was fighting a 4-footer that took off, then suddenly U-turned. Before he knew where the fish had gone, it leaped into the boat, shredding his arm and severing tendons. Of course, barracuda don’t intentionally decide to whack someone in a boat. Although these incidents are rare, it never hurts to be alert out there. ~ Doug Olander